long . lines and ripples

Bernd Heinrich and Oliver Rackham on What Makes a Naturalist

No one decides who gets to be a naturalist. There are no degrees or governing bodies. The term is distinctive, in that it describes an activity that is very demanding and absorptive, yet inclusive. A person is on the way to becoming a naturalist when he, for example, takes pictures of biological samples in the field and contributes them to an open population database like iNaturalist. And the "New Naturalist Library" series has for 75 years published detailed surveys by top scientists, who study the natural world, from climate and weather to butterflies. These scientists, specialized and rigorous as they are--they call themselves naturalists, too.

The plant biologist Oliver Rackham writes in the preface to his book Woodlands:

I was brought up on such classic New Naturalist books as London’s Natural History by R.S.R. Fitter, Mushrooms and Toadstools by John Ramsbottom and The Sea Shore by C.M. Yonge. In that tradition I deal mainly in observations that do not call for specialised equipment and that any well-motivated observer can make. In this field amateurs can still do things that professionals, locked into their own ethos and culture, find difficult. I hope to inspire young readers to lay down the basis for long-term observations to be repeated in future decades.

Rackham makes no attempt to wall off the naturalist's calling from the ordinary public. Quite the opposite, he suggests that the amateur can do more than participate in naturalistic activities. The amateur can, in fact, contribute to an activity defined by "observation," provided that he is willing to keep at it over the long term.1

Today the ideal of the naturalist is often integrated with formal scientific expertise.2 Getting out in nature takes time, and scientists are the ones with grants that pay the bills, university positions with flexible schedules, and a vocational expectation that includes going out into the field and looking around. Everyone else is of course not barred from study, but just being out in nature does not quite make one a naturalist. Then again, there are many field scientists doing their own specialized work, "locked into their own ethos and culture," as Rackham puts it, who are not really engaged in naturalistic pursuits, either. So what makes a naturalist? Consider this description, by the biologist Bernd Heinrich, about the process of taking field notes:

After so many years of making observations, there is hardly a thing I encounter that does not connect me in one way or another to familiar ideas or observations. However, I am most interested in the seemingly anomalous. In taking field notes, the way to find these peculiarities is to keep track of many observations that may not appear at the time to be relevant at all. Similar to the way a subtle twist in a blade of grass may betray the presence of game, a single observation in my field notes may stand out against a backdrop of sentences standing in an ordered array. The way that I keep a journal now reflects the chaotic nature of this type of chase. I cannot afford the luxury of presorting data. I don’t walk around with a notebook. But I often carry a piece of folded paper in my shirt or pants pocket, along with a pencil stub. The information flow as I jog down our driveway and up our country road may be infinite, and I cannot stop every few feet and record everything. I simply remember most observations while I jog, though I may still record mundane things that catch my eye and that might be useful in identifying something in- teresting. At these times I’m not trying to solve a problem; instead, I’m open to signs of one.3

Heinrich describes an observers' routine that is honed by trained scientific curiosity. But the act of observing cannot only serve an existing scientific agenda. Field notes are not a record of what is important. They are a minimal record of what rises to the level of being noticeable, a translation of an "information flow" that is "infinite" into a set of recoverable mental traces. "I cannot afford the luxury of presorting data," he writes. There is no template for the field observer. The naturalist only sees what he records, and field notes are the written, recoverable proof that he has not just seen, but noted too. All his training does not change their mundane character. Real expertise stands on a continuous, stubborn, unbored openness to detail.

A consequence of the naturalist's unflappable commitment to actual observation is that she avoids two oscillating dangers of the modern relationship to nature. The naturalist is not a romantic who ascribes soft spiritual forces to the not-human, who needs to sustain the illusion of a wild or untouched nature to value it. And the naturalist is not really a scientific materialist, either, who seeks to dissect natural processes in terms of physical laws, models and forces. Another feature of naturalistic observation is that while it requires a total commitment to detail, there is also a holistic quality to it, a tendency for the mass of detail to start out as a collection of incongruous parts but end as a system.

Consider the last book by book by Oliver Rackham, The Ancient Woods of the Helford River, published after his death from a partially-finished manuscript. In one chapter he reviews individual patches of woods in a schematic sketch. Here is how he begins his description of the Calamansack Wood along the Helford:

A house was built in the wood in 1918. Much of the wood is mown in August on a two-year cycle. This favours bluebell at the expense of bramble. Two mowings kill holly, resulting in a characteristic empty bottom to the wood. This wood is on a steep south-east-facing slope with a plateau at the top; it is very exposed to the east, except in a deep narrow ravine down to Pill Cove. In the west are two houses of the 1930s, one of which is a period piece with its green pantile roof; their gardens have increased at the expense of the wood. A foot-holloway zigzags down to the pill, at the mouth of which is an elegant granite boathouse.4

Rackham sees no problem with building his naturalistic account on a description of an old house. To see *this* wood is to begin with the outlines of human activity around which it has grown. Neither the human nor the wood has priority here. He will write of how they grow through one another.5 Then, following his own advice, he steps back further in time:

The wood is clearly divided, and has been for at least two hundred years, into a coppice on the exposed slopes and a timberwood in the ravine. The coppice was last felled between 1820 and 1860, apart from an area c.1930 and a few small patches since. The timber trees appear to date from the 1770s. The ancient stools are up to 10 ft in diameter.

Calamansack Wood is a natural process that coexists with a human past. For Rackham it begins with the first mention in the record, and with the earliest signs of human activity:

Calamansack Wood is well recorded back to 1249, the longest certain documented history of any Helford River wood. With Merthen and Gweek, it is one of the earliest woods in England to be shown on a map. It has an ancient boundary bank and an internal earthwork corresponding to a sixteenth-century subdivision (see page 62, Fig. 4.1). There are at least three charcoal-hearths.

Finally, he ends by speculating on the name of the wood itself:

What did the name Calamansack mean? The 1249 form, Kylmoncote, makes no sense in Cornish and is evidently a misspelling. Kylmonsek occurs in 1308 and 1331, Kyllymansak in 1442, and in 1478 we meet a John Kyllymonsek. The first part of the word is probably kyl ‘corner’; monsek is a word of unknown meaning with the adjectival ending -ack. The place-name therefore means ‘Something-y Corner’. By 1442 the name had been reinterpreted as if it contained kelli, ‘grove’, perhaps because of the wood. The hamlets of Calamansack Wartha and Wollas were both in existence at least by 1365 and finally the Kyllymonsek family was named after them.

I make no claim that Rackham's account of the Calamansack wood is a model for the naturalist's approach to observational practice. A naturalist gets to invent, in some sense, an idiosyncratic genre of his own. Rackham's model is an original synthesis of details which could have been put to other purposes. But its essence, as he wrote in the Preface to Woodlands, is being attentive to the factor of time, being willing to decompress the present as far as the details of the total environment (ecological, historical) will allow.

  1. That Rackham calls upon people to observe nature "over the long term" brings up the related idea of natural history, and its connection to the naturalist tradition--a worthwhile question for later. ↩︎
  2. The entry for "naturalist" in the OED suggests one definition close to what I mean: "an amateur concerned more with observation than with experiment." This sense appears to have arisen in the mid-19th century, in parallel with the professionalization of science. Cf. one OED example from Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, where he writes that "every naturalist knows vaguely what he means when he speaks of a species." ↩︎
  3. Bernd Heinrich, "Untangling the Bank," in Field Notes on Science and Nature (33) ↩︎
  4. The following passages are taken from Chapter 7 in Helford Woods, "Individual Woods," pp. 107-110. ↩︎
  5. In the Forward to Woodlands, he confesses that "I write as a now rather old-fashioned botanist, concerned with woodland as an ecosystem with a life of its own, in which human agency is one among many environmental factors. In this book trees are themselves wildlife, rather than merely a habitat for wildlife." ↩︎


Bernd Heinrich, "Untangling the Bank." In Field Notes on Science and Nature, ed. Michael Canfield. Harvard, 2011

Oliver Rackham, Woodlands. New Naturalist Library (100). Collins, 2010.

Oliver Rackham, The Ancient Woods of The Helford River. Little Toller Books, 2019.